Confession time: I have a friend who is a guy. We have been purposefully spending time together for about four months now. We give each other hugs and we talk honestly about what really matters to us.
And we are “just friends.”
Before you laugh at me and tell me I am setting myself up for heartbreak and failure, hear me out. Believe me, I have undergone all manner of agony of the heart over the last several weeks as I have tried to sort out my emotions and my better judgment, my thoughts and my feelings, and which of them are beyond my control and which ones I should listen to and which ones I should act in spite of. It has not been fun, comfortable, or settling. I have passed from attraction and a desire for a relationship, to panic and the desire to back out of said relationship before it got dangerous.
None of those options are what’s happening right now. You see, my friend and I have had several honest heart-to-heart talks in which we have concluded that what both of us really want, at least for the time being, is to remain “just friends.”
But there’s a little problem. Several months ago, as soon as we really began hanging out, I began to see this friendship as having the potential for “something more.” And along with that thought came the inevitable CHECKLIST. You know, that list of qualities that you want to find in a future mate.
I think that most girls… or most single people, for that matter, have a sort of CHECKLIST. My CHECKLIST today is vastly different than it was when I was fourteen; back then, brown hair and brown eyes were near the top of the list, after, of course, “Christian.” As of this summer, heading the list (after the inevitable “Christian”) was something along the lines of respecting my independence, seeing me as an equal and a friend instead of a prize to be won.
So when my friend and I went to see Taming of the Shrew in late August, and he surprised me with his displeasure at the “taming” of Kate, saying she was beautiful when she was herself and shouldn’t have to be changed, I was shocked and deeply pleased. On the way home, we skipped small talk and had a deep discussion about women’s roles in society. I am ashamed to say that a checkmark appeared atop my CHECKLIST.
Another of those items on the new and improved CHECKLIST was that I would end up with someone who was a friend before he was anything else to me… a good friend. Just so happens that I’ve known this friend over five years now. And neither of us called what we were doing “dating” nor did we really consider it such. Another check on the CHECKLIST.
So I checked off items on the CHECKLIST and frowned over other items that weren’t there, not realizing till last night that all the while a more sinister side of the CHECKLIST was emerging.
For one thing, the very fact that I was using my CHECKLIST proved that this was no “friendship” to me. Because, you see, my version of friendship does not include a CHECKLIST. Ever.
To me, friendship starts in a couple of ways. It usually starts with mutual interests. But it grows from there. It grows with trust, with confiding in each other, with shared experiences and emotions (be they laughter or tears, over real-life struggles or characters in a movie). And, for me, a friendship is on its way to being truly deep and lasting when my friend needs me, comes to me, and lets me help them. The friendship is solidified further when I choose to turn to that friend in a time of personal distress, when I am the one in need.
It’s as simple (or complex) as that. There is no CHECKLIST involved. I have friends with deep emotional needs. I have friends with criminal histories. I have friends with very different moral codes and different beliefs than me. I have friends who drink now and then and friends who believe that even cooking with alcohol is a sin. The only thing that has ever made me turn away from a friend was the horrific realization that they were not my friend in return and that the relationship was in fact damaging me in ways that I needed to stop. If I have any “friend CHECKLIST,” that, or the lack thereof, is the only item on it.
The result is that I try my best to love my true friends as unconditionally as I possibly can.
And the problem with a CHECKLIST is that it is conditional.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that one should enter into a serious romantic relationship without deeply evaluating the other. I believe that a lasting, strong marriage (which after all is where a serious romantic relationship leads, at least in my thinking) is not entered into lightly or without seriously considering how well the two people actually “work” together. A lifelong partnership is serious business and demands deep evaluation of oneself and the other.
I am, however, saying that calling a relationship “just a friendship” while at the same time subjecting it to the rigors of the CHECKLIST is living a lie and being vastly unfair to the other party.
It’s also making friendship conditional and imposing the CHECKLIST on something it was never meant to evaluate.
When I realized last night that this was what I was doing, I realized why “just friends” was beginning to feel so uncomfortable. I also found myself at a standstill, staring down at two separate forks in the road.
If I took the “just-friends” path, as we’d discussed, I would need to set my CHECKLIST aside. I would need to commit to the ultimate vulnerability: care for another, allowing him to care, allowing us to continue to talk about what really mattered to us without immediately passing judgment on each other. Taking this path would mean, for the moment, setting aside even the consideration of a romantic relationship. Yet a large part of me, the part of me that created the CHECKLIST to begin with, fears where this path may lead: that my affection for this person, deepened by friendship, might accidentally lead me into a relationship that wouldn’t work because of our differences (the differences highlighted by the items not checked off on the CHECKLIST). It sounds like a path for a naive, foolish, optimistic person, exactly the person I am trying my hardest not to be these days. I am afraid of the pain that could lie at the end of that path.
The other path involves continuing the friendship, with the goal of, at some point in the future, determining whether or not a relationship will work. This path sounds wise, until I realize that it implies the continued use of the CHECKLIST. I may try my very hardest not to use it, but with such a goal, the CHECKLIST will always remain in my subconscious.
The first involves a staggering, ridiculous kind of trust, as well as a turning away from something I deeply want.
The second involves violating one of the deepest principles of my being. Furthermore, it involves a kind of lie. On this path, my mouth is telling the person something different than my heart is inevitably doing.
As difficult as the decision is, I’m sure you can tell which path I took by the very words I am using to describe them. And I will tell you what led me to choose the “friends” path.
It is because I truly care about this person.
I care about keeping my word to this person. I care about telling him the truth when I tell him that he can talk to me about anything. I care about meaning what I say when I say he is my friend. I care about his questions and his needs and his heart. And I don’t want to damage those by saying one thing and really doing another. I want to really care, with no reservations. I want to be his friend. And I think I want to be his friend much more than I want to be his girlfriend.
I cannot be his friend if I am constantly holding him up to a CHECKLIST. It just doesn’t work that way.
There may come a day when the two paths cross. There may come a day when evaluation is once again necessary. Maybe, if that day comes, we will both have changed to fit each others’ CHECKLISTS. Maybe we will evaluate each other and realize together that anything other than friendship just won’t happen. The paths may cross, but I am not counting on it.
Wish me luck. It’s going to be an adventure, and we all know that they are nasty, uncomfortable things, that make you late for dinner.
But if Bilbo’s example is any good, they can also be an opportunity to be completely transformed, to have rough edges knocked off one’s soul, for the friction and trouble to polish one until one gleams. Adventures are good things.
And I’m up for one called friendship.